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An Evidence-Based Emergent Literacy Curriculum for Students with Significant Developmental Disabilities, Including Those Who Are Nonverbal

An Evidence-Based Emergent Literacy Curriculum for Students with Significant Developmental Disabilities, Including Those Who Are Nonverbal

AAC-AT Consultant, Linda Schreiber

March 10, 2008

Expectations of students with significant disabilities, especially in relation to literacy, are changing. Thanks to No Child Left Behind legislation, this population of students is being given the chance to experience literacy that goes beyond the learning of sight words. Speech-language pathologists can play an active role in helping to advocate for this population by supporting the paradigm shift. New evidence-based curriculums are being developed and speech-language pathologists need to be cognizant of the shift in curriculum. This paper describes an exciting new curriculum for teaching emerging literacy skills, including phonemic awareness, to students who are nonverbal (or verbal) and who have significant disabilities.

A group of researchers out of North Carolina have developed a literacy curriculum for this overlooked population. Early Literacy Skills Builder (ELSB) is a scientifically based early literacy intervention program for children with moderate-to-severe developmental disabilities, including autism. It is written for children who have not yet acquired phonemic awareness or print awareness. ELSB is unique in that the curriculum has been written so students can respond verbally or nonverbally. Students actively participate in activities such as shared story reading (e.g., saying a repeated story line) so understanding and comprehension is maximized in the curriculum. Speech-language pathologists should have great interest in this curriculum because one of the outcomes of the research on the effectiveness of the curriculum is impressive communication and language growth in participating students.

The purpose of ELSB is to provide new opportunities for this population of students to learn to read. The curriculum builds on the science of reading; it is based on evidence of elements of instruction found effective for students without disabilities or who have mild disabilities. Students who advance through ELSB are ready for instruction in a beginning reading curriculum. Students who do not master all levels still acquire literacy skills for lifelong use, including learning new vocabulary, gaining meaning from stories that are read, and recognizing words and phrases.

ELSB is based on analyses of published research on reading acquisition. The National Reading Panel (NRP; 2000) reported evidence that phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, vocabulary development, and comprehension are among the essential components of a successful reading program. In addition, Dr. Diane Browder and colleagues (Browder, Wakeman, Spooner, Ahlgrim-Delzell, & Algozzine, 2006) directed an analysis of 128 studies on teaching early reading to students with significant disabilities. They found that most research with this population focused on the learning of sight words using the methods of systematic prompting and fading; the studies showed that students with significant developmental disabilities do acquire sight words through a systematic method of instruction. According to Browder et al. (2006), sight words are only one part of reading and most students would not be expected to learn to read through sight word instruction alone, especially based on the research compiled by the National Reading Panel (2000). Most students with significant disabilities will need instruction to develop phonemic awareness in the early grades due to their developmental delay (Browder et al., 2006). The curriculum is based on the premise that it is not too late to begin promoting phonemic awareness skills for this population at ages 5-10; rather, the early elementary grades may be the best time to develop the skills that can bridge to reading by later grades.

ELSB accommodates the research from both meta-analyses by including the NRP components and direct and systematic instruction techniques. The curriculum is written by a team of experts in research, reading, assessment, curriculum, and adaptive techniques. Authors Diane Browder, Susan Gibbs, Lynn Ahlgrim-Delzell, Ginevra Courtade, and Angel Lee wrote this language-rich curriculum specifically for children ages 5 to 10 who have moderate-to-severe developmental disabilities. It was written to meet the needs of children whether they are verbal or nonverbal.

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aac at consultant

AAC-AT Consultant


linda schreiber

Linda Schreiber



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